Forget the Garden of Eden

144 open space acres east of the Claraboya development is Sycamore Canyon Park | via Google Earth

Here's a problem with wilderness. We tend to think of it as unmanaged and, by definition, unmanageable--a place apart. There is the built environment, where we live; and the natural landscape, where we do not.

The western origins of this dichotomy may date back to the Garden of Eden, though its more contemporary sources can be traced to nineteenth-century European Romanticism and its American analog, Transcendentalism. Our Holy Trinity of Wildness--Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir--constructed a cultural defense of unspoiled beauty that has created a robust literature and poetics, been institutionalized in the national-parks system, sparked the creation of wildlands-dedicated organizations like the Sierra Club, justified the passage of and found sanction in the Wilderness Act (1964), and has launched a thousand glossy calendars glorifying the Great Outdoors.

Yet these social goods, and the ideals on which they depend, come with an important qualification: if Homo sapiens have no place in nature--evicted with Adam and Eve--then what is our responsibility for the places we profess to love so much? "Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature," historian William Cronon has argued, "for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land." This being so, our conception of wilderness "can offer no solution to the environmental...problems that confront us."

Yet how does this provocative argument work on the ground? I wondered about this while reading news of the dormant status of Sycamore Canyon Park in Claremont, the leafy college town on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. Established in 1972, the 144-acre wedge of a park lies north of the Thompson Creek flood-control channel and is overlooked to the west by a lush, high-end development called Claraboya, before it rises into the rough folds of Sunset Peak. Dotted with sycamore, oak, and eucalyptus, and studded with chaparral, cacti, and manzanita, it is a foraging site for mule deer and coyote. Trails link its rolling terrain to the nearby city-owned, 1600-acre Wilderness Park, and through it the Angeles National Forest.

None of this environment meets the classic definition of wilderness, in which the human imprint is non-existent. Ranching already had altered its ecosystem and the flora and fauna that lived within it. Where cattle once grazed, cars now roam down the hardened streetscapes that come with suburbanization; much of the water that flows down Sycamore Canyon is immediately captured in a concrete ditch, an essential diversion if you want to construct residences on an alluvial floodplain. Through the high-tension power lines arcing overhead and you can glimpse cell towers, like so many porcupine quills, spiking up along a distant ridgeline.

Despite this durable evidence of our heavy hand, "nature" has not been exiled. Just ask anyone who had to flee the wind-whipped Padua Fire, a local outbreak of the larger 2003 Grand Prix conflagration: it torched the brush-choked and wooded hills of northern Claremont, incinerating 66 homes; ashes swirled down into the community as if it was snowing. Sycamore Canyon Park was among those spaces that burned with great intensity, a mark of which is that it has been fenced off ever since. When a Claremont Courier reporter recently asked about this lengthy hiatus, a city official replied: "We needed at least 6 years to allow the site to regrow and reestablish itself."

That's the reflexive power of the idea of wilderness--only the wild can rehabilitate itself; only its growth is good growth. Nature knows best.

Unless you get sued. Then wilderness rhetoric can become something of a fig leaf. Hit with a series of post-fire lawsuits alleging that the city had failed to clear away brush immediately adjacent to subdivisions that abutted its wilderness parks, in 2005 Claremont began to run goats in Sycamore Canyon to reduce its fuel loads. This biological control was supplemented with more mechanical interventions: in May 2008, a cash-strapped city council expressed relief that the Los Angeles County Fire Department had agreed to absorb the costs of cutting down and removing 70 Eucalyptus trees killed in the fire, saving a bundle.

Since then, the city has intensified its managerial presence. Early this January, it announced that in collaboration with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, as well as other public agencies and non-profit organizations, it will soon launch a year-long, full-scale restoration of Sycamore Canyon Park. Non-native vegetation will be removed, including 140 Eucalyptus trees; indigenous oaks and sycamores will be planted in their place. A new trail will be cut, switchbacking across a ridge so that it can intersect with the dense network of paths and fire breaks that fan out across the southern face of the San Gabriel Mountains. Even the canyon's streambed may be altered, all with the goal of enhancing what city planners declare is the park's "unique and beautiful" environs.

The Sycamore project thus represents in small form the larger culture's uneasy compromise between our professed dedication to the preservation of wilderness and our unwillingness to leave well enough alone; between our rhetoric and action. But as such it also continues the troubling wilderness-civilization dichotomy that has crippled the creation of an environmentalism that can lead us to embrace our obligations to repair what we have broken and our responsibility to integrate ourselves more carefully into the land that sustains us.

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